How does a city work? Interactive model gives Portland answers.

How does public transportation affect education? What impact does population density have on public health? Is there a connection between CO2 levels and obesity?

Officials in the City of Portland, Ore., have collaborated with IBM to find answers to those and other questions, developing an interactive model that connects the relationships between the city’s core systems that handle the economy, housing, education, public safety, transportation and health care.

The computer simulation lets Portland’s leaders see how city systems work together, how environmental and other factors relate to each other and project the likely results of actions under consideration.


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The model was built to support the development of metrics for the Portland Plan, the city’s roadmap for the next 25 years, said Joe Zehnder, chief planner with Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

“We wanted to break down our typical policy or investment silos like transportation, housing, economic development and the environment and look at how policy and investments within any of those areas could play a role in accomplishing a limited and shared set of priorities,” Zehnder said.

Portland basically served as a living laboratory during the year-long collaboration effort to explore how complex city systems behave over time.

IBM approached the Portland officials in late 2009 and kicked off the project in April 2010, when IBM experts met with over 75 Portland-area subject matter experts in a variety of fields to learn about system-interconnection points in the city.

Later, with help from researchers at Portland State University and systems software company Forio Business Simulations, the city and IBM collected approximately 10 years of historical data from across the city to support the model.

The project resulted in a computer model of Portland as an interconnected system that provides planners at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability with an interactive visual model that lets them navigate and test changes in the city's systems.

“We’ve been trying to model across cities, looking at how transportation relates to public safety or how public safety relates to education," said Justin Cook, IBM’s program manager for Portland. This will help cities set long-term policy goals.

Through a Web browser, the mayor or officials within the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability can access the model from anywhere, Cook said.

They can see an interactive visual map of interconnections and see, for example, what other areas are related to emissions, Cook said. Or they can draw a map between areas to visualize all of the connections.

Finally, they can make changes and test policy positions by doing “what if” scenarios such as “what would happen if the city added more sidewalk miles or more grocery stores per square miles," Cook said.

Meanwhile, IBM introduced new analytics software and services to help cities predict the results of policy decisions and their positive and negative consequences in the future.

System Dynamics for Smarter Cities is designed to help municipal officials reduce the unintended negative consequences on residents of municipal actions, as well as uncover hidden beneficial relationships among municipal policies, IBM officials said.

The software addresses the dynamics across a spectrum of municipal policies and their effect on citizens, such as the associations between:

  • Public transportation fares and high school graduation rates.
  • Obesity rates and CO2 emissions.
  • Average health and attractiveness of the city to businesses.
  • Population density and wellness.
  • Taxes/fees collected and electricity consumption.
  • Farmers markets and economic growth.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Wed, Aug 10, 2011 earth

The greatest benefit from this would likely be citizen’s initiatives in finding the beneficial relationships. That would require making the model and data available to citizens of the city. For instance “transportation access to farmers markets and population wellness”. Wouldn’t it be interesting if ease of access to farmers markets was negatively correlated with public welfare health costs? Or, possible use of methane gas production from restaurant trash digestion to power municipal mass transit and the reduction in the fill rate of the municipal dump as a result. (The fines sent to the farmers.) Somehow I expect city employees concerned with one aspect of city management may not be able to cut across multiple aspects as easily as citizens or have as open a mind about relationships that affect their area.

Of course people of ill will and selfish motives will mine the model as well. Which creates security implications. But an informed public makes for better collective intelligence.

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